ST. THOMAS, VIRGIN ISLANDS – Playing without its All-Southeastern Conference center and with a starting lineup that included three sophomores, a freshman and a junior, the No. 10 AP/No. 11 ESPN/USA Today Coaches ranked University of Alabama basketball team defeated Middle Tennessee 71-62. It was the opening game in the 2006 Paradise Jam here in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands.
Alabama moves to 2-0 with the win, and will play Iowa in the tournament's semifinal on Sunday. That semifinal game, which will be televised by Fox Sports South, will be at 5:00 p.m. CST. Middle Tennessee, 1-2, plays the loser of the Iowa-Toledo match up on Saturday at 5 p.m. CT.
The Crimson Tide was without one of its two John R. Wooden candidates, senior center Jermareo Davidson. Davidson remained in Alabama to attend a funeral on Friday. He was a passenger in a tragic accident last Saturday night that claimed the life of his girlfriend. Davidson is expected to join the team in St. Thomas on Saturday afternoon. His playing status is questionable for Alabama's remaining two games in the tournament.
"We missed Jermareo this afternoon. He's a big part of our team," said his teammate, junior All-American point guard Ronald Steele. "But the young guys played great. They had great effort. I'm proud of the team."
Steele led the Alabama win with 20 points, making five of 13 from the field, three of those from 3-point range. He was a perfect seven of seven at the free throw line. Despite continuing to be hampered by tendonitis in his right knee, Steele played 38 minutes in a game where his numbers also included four assists and four rebounds.
"I'm going to do a lot of treatment between now and Sunday, and hopefully by then I'll be at 100 percent," said Steele.
Alabama, which had turned the ball over 11 times in its season opener against Jackson State on November 10 nearly cut its turnovers in half Friday. It had only six turnovers for the game which also found Middle Tennessee rarely turning it over as well as it ended the game with nine.
Stepping in for Davidson at center was Yamene Coleman, a redshirt freshman who found himself starting in just his second ever collegiate game. Coleman played 20 minutes, scoring five points and grabbing five rebounds and no turnovers.
Middle Tennessee, which had 36 points in the paint compared to 26 by Alabama's big men, pushed Alabama throughout the game. Alabama led 38-31 at halftime in a game that saw three ties in the early minutes before Alabama would take the lead for good with 16:07 still remaining in the first half, at 9-8 when Richard Hendrix made a layup and was fouled by Middle Tennessee's Theryn Hudson and then made the foul shot for the three-point play.
"The bottom line was we found a way to win," said Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried. "We missed Jermareo, but I was proud of the way our guys played. We played hard. We didn't necessarily play great, but they did play hard. If you think about the game in this term, too, without Jermareo, Demetrius (Jemison) and Yamene combined for 13 points and six rebounds in his absence. They played together just a couple of minutes. Mostly it was just one of the two of them in the game; so really, we ended up with 13 points out of that position. But I thought our guys did what they had to do to win. That was the bottom line. Ron Steele obviously played with so much courage and so much heart. What a great young guy he is. But we've got to get better in a lot of areas. Defensively, we've got to get a lot better. I think we can be a great foul-shooting team, but right now we're missing some foul shots that are difference makers in the tempo or the margins when you have a chance to go up. We had the chance to go up nine and we missed the front end. And then they score. We've got to get better in a lot of areas, but a win is a win. We're on the right side of the bracket with a chance to win again on Sunday."
Two Tide players fouled out of the game, Demetrius Jemison 4:24 remaining in the game and Richard Hendrix with just 19 seconds left. Alabama had three players score in double digits, including Steele with a game-leading 20, 16 from Hendrix and 12 from Alonzo Gee. Hendrix led the game with eight of Alabama's 36 rebounds. Alabama shot 25 of 51 for 49.0% from the field but was 5 of 16 (.31.3%) from 3-point range. It made 16 of 25 free throws for 64%.
Tim Blue came off the bench to lead Middle Tennessee's scorers with 13 points and starting guard Kevin Kanaskie had 12 points. It shot 25 of 59 from the field for 42.4% and was 4 of 14 (.28.6%) from 3-point range. Nigel Johnson led with seven of its 32 rebounds. It was 8 of 16 at the line.